By Wole Talabi
The motorcycle broke down about halfway between the Surulere and Lagos Island exits, near the end of what was left of Third Mainland Bridge. Akin clambered off the sputtering and clanking machine.
“Oloshi!” He cursed.
The sound echoed, bouncing off a thousand dusty surfaces and returned, cursing back at him in his own voice. Akin stared ahead in frustration. The bridge was slightly warped and crumpled, as though a malevolent giant had started to squeeze it at both ends and then changed his mind before doing any real damage. The dull heat haze limited his visibility to a few dozen meters but he could see protruding slabs of broken concrete, the husks of long burned out vehicles, crumbling skeletons and rubble spread around, a study in devastation finished in fine harmattan dust and ambitious weeds. Thirsty cracks ran all along asphalt, splitting and reuniting at multiple points, maliciously spiderwebbing it without rendering it completely impassable.
Beyond the empty lagoon and the dust and the haze, the remains of Lagos Island waited. He slung his beaten leather bag over his shoulder, adjusted his fraying belt and started walking. He kept to the raised left side of the bridge, beside the barrier rail. There was no sound except for the crunch of his boots on road and rubble, some birds chirping, the groaning of distant concrete and metal, and the slopping of low, thick mud against the piers below. Akin felt like he was an explorer on the surface of some ancient alien moon.
He had not crossed Third Mainland Bridge since before the event and he had been dreading the day he would need to cross it again. There was a time he used to traverse the bridge every day. It had been the most convenient way to get from his two-bedroom apartment in Oworonshoki, at the southern edge of the city, to his office in the small, ocean-reclaimed landmass that was Eko Atlantic. The area was supposed to be Lagos’s commercial future back when the world still made sense. When the sky wasn’t barren. Back then he had aspirations to eventually save enough money to buy a nice plot of land on the Island, or even, if he were really lucky, move abroad to start a new life.
Even then, he had been afraid to cross the bridge. Incompetent drivers, impatient and inconsiderate drivers, drivers falling asleep at the wheel, those were the things he had feared then. Now, there were no more drivers. No more people. Now that things had fallen apart, he only feared that the bridge would not hold. That some loose, sun-baked segment of the structure would give way and he would fall to his death.
As he walked, he kept an eye out for any fallen motorcycles, something he could pick up and continue his journey with. Perhaps some okada man had been unfortunate enough to be on the bridge when the event occurred, but not unfortunate enough to crash into anything. He strode past a black Range Rover SUV with deflated tires and a broken windscreen. In the front seat sat the desiccated remains of a man, neck twisted at an impossible angle. In the back, was the dried out husk of a woman cradling the skeletal remains of a baby, rotten fabric clinging to their bones. Akin fought the urge to retch as bile rose to his throat. He couldn’t afford to lose the fluids.
He thought he’d already wept all the tears he could spare, thought he had gotten used to it all, but the sight threatened to break him all over again. In that instant, there was nothing he wanted more in the world than not to be alone anymore; to hold hands with another human being and find comfort through shared suffering. He was weary of being the only guest at the city’s wake; the burden of grieving was too great to bear.
Steeling himself, he turned away from the sight and walked faster, focusing on the asphalt and concrete ahead of him. There was no time to mourn the long-dead. The end of the world had come and gone. The only thing that mattered now was finding clean water.
It had been years since rain had fallen in Lagos. Two years almost to the day. The day when, just few minutes past 5 p.m., West Africa Time, on a humid Monday evening, the sullen sky had exploded into a brilliant, alien green. The unnatural light had lingered for a few seconds, and then crashed down to the ground, like a waterfall of light.
With lightfall, came death. People died where they stood without even a chance to scream. Cars crashed into each other on the expressway. Buildings groaned. Planes fell from the sky. Electronic devices stopped working. And the water rose. Columns of water climbed from the oceans, the rivers and the lakes, towering miles into the air and spinning with a terrifying symmetry, like impossibly large fingers reaching for something beyond the stratosphere. And then, a few minutes later, it was all over. The event had occurred suddenly and without warning, leaving nothing but death, confusion and thirst in its wake.
Akin maintained a steady pace, his back bent to an almost-slouch. He had a colt series .70 pistol he had lifted from the broken corpse of a police officer near Herbert Macaulay Road tucked between his jeans and his belt. The wooden handle of a machete jutted out of his bag over his shoulder – he had needed it in the mad and desperate days following the event when the few survivors had fought each other for what little water was left. He didn’t need to fight anyone for anything anymore—it had been more than three months since he set eyes on another living human being—but parts of the city had become home to surviving monkeys, snakes and even a few wild dogs made rabid by thirst and dust, so he always kept his weapons with him.
Presently, he came upon an overturned black and yellow danfo lying on its side like an exhausted giant mechanical bee. It had veered off the main bridge and crashed into the barrier rail, cutting off his path, its belly facing the lagoon. Beside it, two of the bridge’s spans had separated by a clean seam almost a meter along. Akin stared at the gap for a few seconds and decided not to try for a jump across the gap even though he felt like he could make it. Instead, he stepped back, grabbed the top of the mangled bus and hauled himself onto it, the tail of his oversized polo shirt flapping behind him. He stepped over the metal carcass, watching carefully for glass and jagged metal. Lowering himself down on the other side, his foot came down on something hard and brittle. It broke. Akin looked down to see he had stepped on the femur of a skeleton that lay crushed under the bus. He cringed. It was an ill omen. He surveyed the area, and turning left, found himself face to face with a dusty, black Yamaha motorcycle which, like the bus, lay on its side. There was caked blood on the seat. The key was still in the ignition.
“Baba God!” He exclaimed as he rushed to it and raised it up onto its two unsteady rubber feet. The fuel gauge indicated the tank was about half full. “Please, please, just work.”
He turned the key and the engine whimpered. He turned it again and it sputtered. He turned it three more times and it choked each time. Then, on the fourth turn, it roared to life, coughing like a proud but fatally wounded animal determined not to die quietly.
Overwhelmed, he broke into familiar song, “Baba! Baba! Ba-Ba! Ese o baba! Ese o baba! Baba a dupe baba!”
He stopped singing when the dust started to scratch against the back of his throat, reminding him that it had been almost sixteen hours since he had drank any water.
Akin licked his chapped lips and climbed onto the rumbling Yamaha. He revved the engine twice and eased it back, away from the wrecked danfo and the skeleton of the person who had owned it before him.
He let the Yamaha crunch along the debris and carnage of the long drive down, all the way past the abutment on the Lagos Island end of the bridge, and then slowed to a stop as the stark emptiness beyond the heat haze and dust was eroded by the vista of the crumbling skyscrapers of the Marina, standing like broken glass and concrete teeth at the mouth of the city. He left the bike running and stationary while he surveyed his surroundings. Sharp streaks of harsh sunlight glinted off the glass-skinned buildings closest to caked mud banks of the lagoon. A crumbling billboard in the distance insisted ‘Eko o ni baje o,’ oblivious to the fact that it already had. The broken city echoed the rough growling of the bike beneath him. A solitary pied crow scudded across his vision, a linear black and white blur that quickly faded into the space between the outline of two skyscrapers. Akin shook his head. Nature was adjusting to life after the event. After mankind.
All the vain monuments the people of Lagos had built to their own existence, nature would reclaim; slowly, patiently.
He eased back down onto the bike, thinking of the thirst and the desperate plan that had finally brought him to the Island. Accelerating gently, he drove down the relatively flat and smooth rest of the bridge, navigating his way between wrecked vehicles. He downshifted when he hit the steep grade running up the west side of Ring Road and bore down on the throttle as he headed for Victoria Island, grateful for the air against his skin.
When he reached his destination, he slowed to a crawl. The metal security gate in front of The Palms shopping mall had been rudely torn away from the concrete pillars it was set into. Akin squeezed the Yamaha through the small pathway meant for pedestrians and rolled past the parking lot, all the way up to the main mall entrance. The sun was baking his skin. He clambered off the bike and stepped through the left pane of the broken glass doors, as always. Dozens of near-death experiences had given him enough material to build up easy superstitions: always enter buildings through the left and never disturb the bones of the dead, if you could help it.
He headed toward the storage area of Shoprite, where they usually kept a stock of items including bottled water that he was desperately hoping no other survivors had gotten to after the event. He’d been foraging for and subsisting on old supermarket stock like it on the mainland for months until he couldn’t find any more, forcing his migration to the Island.
Akin walked easily, gentle footfalls padded by dust. He had almost reached the last display aisle before the storage area entrance when he heard the sound. It came from behind him – a harsh crepitation that tore through the fabric of silence.
It sounded like a very sick man coughing through deteriorating lungs. Akin’s breath scraped against his throat, gritty and dry. Blood pulsed against the side of his head. He whipped out the colt from its wedge between his jeans and belt and turned sharply on his heel, calling out, “Who dey there?”
The only response that came was the hollow echo of his voice.
“I say who dey there?! Come out now before I shoot!”
There was a sound like the shuffling of feet, then another harsh, scraping cough. This time, Akin followed it to what had once been a hot food counter on his right. The source of the sound was hiding behind it.
“If you don’t come out now I will-”
“Don’t shoot, please! I’m coming.”
The young man who emerged from behind the glass and metal counter was frightfully thin. His hair was a cluster of ratty knots and his eyes were sunken, rheumy orbs. He must have been underground somewhere when the event occurred, just like Akin. Most of the survivors had been. He was wearing a shirt that hung on him like excess skin on bones, a pair of filthy shorts and tattered Adidas trainers, brown under the dust. He held his hands up as he took unsteady steps toward Akin.
“Who are you?” Akin asked, his voice shaking with shock. He had gotten used to not seeing anyone alive and the sight of this man was jarring.
“My name is Chuka,” the man said, then coughed again. He turned around very slowly like a rotisserie under Akin’s burning glare and when he was face to face with Akin again, he slowly lowered his hands to his sides and patted down his pockets before putting them up again. “I don’t have any weapons. Please, don’t kill me.”
“Where have you been hiding since the event?” Akin asked, letting a little curiosity temper his caution now that it seemed the man was mostly harmless and only about half a step beyond death’s reach.
“Ajah. I came down to the Island yesterday night when my food finished.”
“Did you drive?”
“You walked all the way from Ajah?” Akin asked, surprised.
“Na so we see am, my brother. When food finish, wetin man go do?”
Akin cautiously nodded his understanding; he’d also been compelled to move from the mainland to the Island when he’d exhausted his water supply. Well, that and his plan to finally leave Lagos.
“Are you alone?” Akin asked.
“What have you been drinking? Do you have clean water?” Akin didn’t want to ask the man any questions about his cough, about his health, about what he had been through until he was reasonably sure he could trust him. Water was far more important than empathy in these latter days.
“Coke,” Chuka said, “There was a broken down supply trailer near my house but it is finished now.”
Akin scanned Chuka’s face, saw the tension in his neck and the hopeful look in his eye, and decided he was either lying or leaving something out. Akin decided to show him some small measure of kindness to put him at ease before pressing further. “You can put your hands down,” he said.
Chuka’s rail-thin hands slumped heavily to his sides and a smile started to cut its way across his face. “Thank you. Please I haven’t seen anyone for weeks. Can you tell me-”
“You didn’t answer my last question.” Akin barked at him. “Do you have clean water? And don’t you dare lie to me.”
Chuka’s face was suddenly tense. He closed his eyes and swayed unsteadily. Another cough erupted from him and he wiped the back of his hand across his forehead as he pleaded, “Please, I take God beg you, please don’t take it from me. It’s all I have.”
“Take what?” Akin took one step closer to Chuka, keeping the sleek colt barrel pointed at the frail man’s heart. “Tell me. Now!”
Chuka stood there silently, staring at the ground in abstraction. Akin tightened his grip on the colt. He didn’t want to shoot the man but he was prepared to, if it came to it. In the half-light of the supermarket, dust motes floated about like strange, lifeless fireflies. Then Chuka said, without looking up, “The water generator.”
“Show me,” Akin demanded.
Chuka’s face was a grim mask. He turned, gesturing for Akin to follow, and stepped back behind the food counter to show him what looked like a small power-generator. The kind most people in Lagos had referred to as ‘I-beta-pass-my-neighbour’. There were two small plastic jars and what looked like a green gas cylinder attached to it via a serpentine system of transparent tubes. A patina of dirt had settled on everything, reducing the transparency but it looked like there was clean water in one of the plastic jars and dirty yellow water in the other. The bizarre contraption reminded Akin of the time his sister had been on dialysis, tubes snaking their way in and out of her like creeper vines. “Is that it?”
“Yes.” Chuka knelt down by the generator unit and touched it with a rake-thin hand. “I took it from my supervisor’s office. It can turn urine into drinking water, and even generate small power too.”
Akin’s face hardened. “Do I look like a fool? Don’t lie to me. We are probably the only two people remaining in this Lagos and I’m the one with the gun so don’t fucking lie to me.”
“I’m not lying,” Chuka mewed desperately, his voice winding up to a whine as he reached for the generator unit and pushed three buttons in succession. “Watch.”
Akin stepped back, preparing himself for a trick. Years of living in Lagos and surviving the strange days after the event had taught him to actively distrust anything that sounded too good to be true.
At Chuka’s touch, the generator started with a low mechanical grumble building up to a low hum. The transparent tubes began to shake, vibrating with fluid flow. The sound was surprisingly muted. As Akin watched, the yellow liquid in the jar on the left began to deplete and the level of clear liquid in the other began to rise. Slowly, but definitely.
“That’s pee,” Chuka said, pointing at the jar with the yellow liquid as the generator buzzed away. “The other one is water.”
Akin, his face scrunched up asked, “How?”
“I was doing my MBA in Lagos Business School when my supervisor’s daughter invented this thing. It uses an electrolytic cell to separate the hydrogen in the piss. The hydrogen is then filtered and dried here,” Chuka paused to point at a small plastic cylinder that connected the tube to the gas cylinder. “The hydrogen reacts with air, powers the generator and produces the clean water as waste.”
“Drink it.” Akin said without lowering his gun.
Chuka looked up at him, disappointment sketched across his face in ugly lines, “My brother, na wa o. It’s just the two of us here. I won’t lie to you. Why don’t you believe-”
“Drink it!” Akin commanded, refusing to let the small bubble of hope welling inside of him to become a spring.
Chuka coughed again and made a show of turning off the generator. He disconnected and opened the water jar as he spoke without looking at Akin, “I swear to God almighty, I’m not lying. My project was to find a way to help them commercialize the product and sell to one oyibo company-” He coughed again; a harsh and grating cough that lasted a few seconds before quieting down, “now, it’s the only reason I’m still alive. With this, once I get a little clean water or anything to drink, really, it can last for weeks. It’s not perfect, I get a little running stomach every now and then, but it won’t kill me like the thirst will.” Then he put the jar to his lips and took a long drink of the fluid which looked much clearer without being seen through the film of dust on the jar. When he was done, Chuka put down the jar and licked his lips, turning to stare at Akin, a small, wet smile dancing around the corners of his mouth. “Do you believe me now?”
They stared at each other for almost a full minute, a small piece of time made unnaturally heavy by the intensity of each man’s considerations.
Akin took two steps forward, slowly lowered his gun and dropped to his knees one at a time. He tucked the colt back between his belt and his jeans. He opened his arms wide like gates of a city and embraced Chuka. Chuka leaned into the hug. Akin smiled, his embarrassment at his sudden explosion of vulnerability and humanity diluted by the realisation that this was the first time he had touched another living person in months.
“Thank you for not shooting me,” Chuka said, over Akin’s heaving shoulder.
“Thank God for this miracle,” Akin said, closing his eyes. For the first time in a long time, he felt something more than the mad drive to survive. He felt hopeful; hopeful about the future, about his insane plan to take one of the many abandoned trucks by the Marina, stock it with as much food and water as he could find and leave Lagos for some other place he was sure had not eaten itself after the event, some place with more underground infrastructure –Europe, perhaps, if enough of the Strait of Gibraltar had been lost during the event. Chuka could help him. The water-purifier-generator thing he had could help him. They could help each other. They could survive and together, maybe make some sense of what the world had become.
Eyes still closed, he felt a strange but insistent pressure on his stomach. Then the pressure stopped and mutated into a throbbing. Akin’s eyes shot open and he reached down, his fingers finding Chuka’s bony forearm. He pushed away from Chuka violently, his knees dragging against something sharp on the floor. He looked down and saw blood spreading through his shirt from his midsection like a wild, red flower. A throbbing pain pulsed through him. He rotated his eyes back up just in time to see Chuka’s right hand stabbing down toward his chest. The hand was wrapped around a small red-tipped kitchen knife; the kind his mother used to use to cut onions and garlic to make her delicious oily red stew when he was a child.
Acting more on desperate instinct than calculated thought, Akin threw his weight to his left so that the knife only sliced his right shoulder and Chuka collapsed on top of him, carried by his own momentum. Before the man could recover, Akin jammed his gun into Chuka’s belly and fired three shots in quick succession. Each bullet sounded impossibly loud, a solid wall of sound that he could feel in his teeth. He crawled out from under Chuka’s lanky body, his ears ringing, breath heavy, and left hand pressed to his gut, desperate to keep the precious fluids from flowing out.
“Jesus!” He shouted, banging the butt of the colt against the dusty floor. “No. No. No. Why? What the fuck is wrong with you!?” He screamed up at the high ceiling before turning his head to see Chuka immobile on the floor in a spreading pool of blood.
There was quiet for a minute or two, or maybe five. Akin wasn’t sure. Adrenaline and anger blurred time into a nebulous cloud.
His thoughts drifted and in his mind he saw his sister’s warm, hopeful smile, he felt his mother’s tight, comforting hug, he heard his father’s wild, reassuring laugh, and then the tears started to fall from his eyes. He yearned for them so much it hurt – much more than the persistent, throbbing pain from his belly. Beyond the yearning, the disappointment hurt too. He’d finally found another person, a fellow survivor, someone with whom he thought he could share his humanity for a moment and it had almost cost him his life. Exhausted and thirsty, he envied the millions of restful dead scattered about the city.
Slowly, the sadness condensed into the grim determination and steel resolve that had kept him going after the event. He couldn’t afford to cry or bleed. The end of the world had come and gone. The only thing that mattered now was staying alive.
He rose to his feet, pain gnawing at him as he studied the wound in his belly. It was a small slit, barely half an inch wide and it wasn’t bleeding nearly as much as he’d first thought. The knife couldn’t have gone in very deep or he’d be in agony. He murmured his thanks to God through tight lips. He would have to cauterize the wound if he didn’t want it to become septic. The thought of the pain that was to come made him grit his teeth. Akin ripped the left sleeve off his polo shirt where the knife had cut his shoulder and folded it over itself until it was a small, thick pad. He slapped it on to the wound in his belly and slid his fraying belt from its place in his jeans. He wrapped the belt around his belly and buckled it, tightly securing the pad in place. The pressure made him wince.
Picking up his gun, he walked toward the generator that Chuka had been willing to kill him over and regarded it, thinking of a good way to carry it with him.
“I’m sorry,” Chuka whispered from the floor. He sounded like he was speaking through bubbles. Akin turned to face him sharply, training his colt on the dying man in case he tried something stupid again.
There was laboured breathing for a while and then more words. “Everyone tries… tries… to take it from me. Everyone.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Akin said angrily, “We could have survived together.”
Chuka coughed a cough that sounded like a wet, diseased laugh and tried to roll over but he was too weak. He only managed to bend his elbow and point a shaky finger to his neck. A swollen, rope-shaped scar that Akin hadn’t noticed before ran around it, “That’s… that’s… what the last person who tried to take it from me said just before… she… she tried to strangle me.”
Chuka was seized by another coughing fit that made his eyes bulge. When the coughs stopped more words burbled out of him, less coherent, “You… you even have… gun… I just… I couldn’t… I had to take… my chance… trust… I’m… I’m sorry.”
There was no response.
Akin knelt down pointing his gun Chuka’s face. The man’s narrowed and bloodshot eyes stared down the barrel unblinkingly. It took a few seconds for Akin to realize he was dead.
When Akin finally exited the shopping mall building, the sun was still baking the earth beneath the pale turquoise of a cloudless sky, brutal and unrelenting like a long-unworshipped god’s glare. One by one, he loaded the pair of four-by-three cartons of bottled water he’d taken from the now-empty storage area into a shopping trolley, arranging them carefully on top of Chuka’s water-purifier generator. He secured the shopping trolley to the motorcycle with a length of sinewy green rope, looping it several times along its entire length through the Yamaha’s metal short sub-frame and seat supports. A dirty green wheelbarrow he hadn’t noticed when he arrived earlier lay on its side a few meters away, visible despite the swirling dust and the heat. Akin wondered briefly if it had been Chuka’s. He looked away, to the dusty horizon, struck acutely by the realisation he had to get out of the heat quickly. He had water now; perhaps he’d try to find somewhere he could stay near the Marina, a base from which to continue to forage, rest and prepare for his migration.
He climbed onto the bike and throttled the engine, keeping it in low gear. The rest of Lagos waited for him, all blue, empty sky and dust, baking in the heat of the sun. The pain in his side and the heat from above made every breath of hot air he took feel like he was inhaling pure fire.
Suffering but smiling thinly, he thanked God that he’d found the water-purifier-generator, that he’d survived Chuka’s treachery, that he had some bottled water, that he was still alive. And as long as he was still alive, there was still hope; hope for finding more water, for finding a good truck, for leaving this arid, godforsaken wasteland. He silently prayed that he would not meet anyone else in Lagos as he slowly rolled the bike back to the mall gate, rounded the right hand corner of the exit and entered the corpse of Ozumba Mbadiwe Road, the loaded shopping trolley rattling uncomfortably behind him.